The inaugural USA Cycling Professional Tour begins Sunday as the 2007 Tour of California kicks off with a three-kilometer prologue up Telegraph Hill in downtown San Francisco. Among the 18 teams slated to start, the 2007 USA Cycling National Development Team will make its season debut as part of arguably the greatest field ever assembled for a competitive cycling event in the United States.
The eight-man development team roster includes Chad Beyer, 20 (Anthem, Ariz.) Brent Bookwalter, 23 (Cedar Springs, Mich.), Sheldon Deeny, 22 (Fort Collins, Colo.), John Devine, 21 (Dixon, Ill.), Caleb Fairly, 19 (Amarillo, Texas), Scott Stewart, 19 (Oxford, Mich.), Chris Stockburger, 19 (Fort Collins, Colo.) and Tejay Van Garderen, 18 (Fort Collins, Colo.). For these athletes, the Tour of California will represent their most significant challenge to date as they compete alongside many of the top professional cyclists and teams from Europe and the United States.
"I think we're all going into the race with open hopes," explained John Devine of his team's expectations. "It's hard to come into a 2.HC race this early in the season and know exactly where you're at, but we've done some good testing on the SRM's and I know that for me personally, I've put up more numbers this year than ever before, and I'd say that trend would follow with the other riders also. The best-case scenario would be to win the Best Young Rider's Jersey. That would be the ultimate goal for the team, but the second goal would be to get everybody to the finish line in Long Beach and to really grow as a team."
Although several UCI ProTour teams and other professional teams' rosters feature riders under the age of 25, the US Development Team is the only entry whose entire roster is less than a quarter-century old. Bookwalter, who turned 23 on Friday, is the squad's eldest competitor starting on Sunday.
For team director Noel Dejonckheere, success for the squad will be defined in a similar fashion, but he also noted that the opportunity to compete in an .HC-classified race will also give his riders a chance to show their skills on a global stage.
"I'm hoping that one or two days we can get a top-ten placing in a stage," said Dejonckheere. "The other possibility is that we try and get the under-25 jersey for maybe one or two days and hope that one rider makes the top-20 or 25 in the general classification. For us, it's the highest-level race we'll do this year along with the Tour de Georgia. There are a lot of races we'll do in Europe that are category-1 events, but they don't have the quality of field that the Tour of California will. This race is really close to a UCI ProTour race, and if people feel like they are getting close to going to a UCI ProTour team, it's up to them to show it. They've got the chance. If you can show it, maybe some team will want to sign you up."
Ultimately, the goal of each rider on the US Development Team is to land a contract with a UCI ProTour team - something eight riders have accomplished since the program's inception in 1999. Devine, who will join the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team on July 1, will be the latest program graduate to make the jump to cycling's big leagues.
"It's a little overwhelming and we're all a little anxious," explained Bookwalter. "You think about it all year, but when you roll into the parking lot and see all the teams and all the riders, the magnitude of it kind of hits you. But it's still a bike race and we're all strong and capable riders. I think we all want to leave some mark on this race. We're definitely the youngest team here, but we just want to have an impact and represent and show these guys that we belong here."